When (if ever) Should You Walk Away From a Mortgage

A reader asks whether he should walk away from his mortgage

Recently a reader e-mailed me asking whether he should walk away from his mortgage. In 2007, he bought a condo with no money down on a 5-year adjustable rate mortgage, and the property is now worth $25,000 less than he owes. Although he can afford the mortgage, he is considering walking away from his mortgage. The question is whether he should walk out on the mortgage.

I start by saying that there is no “answer” to this question, just things to consider in making the best choice for your situation. We’ll talk about some things to consider before walking away from your house, but first a brief story.

My wife and I bought our first home in 1993 for $190,000. Almost immediately after we closed on the home, housing prices started to go down. Because we didn’t have nifty home valuation websites to consult back in 1993 (my how times have changed), I don’t know the precise decline in the price. But I’d guess it went down 10% in value, or about $20,000.

We stayed in the home; a voluntary foreclosure never even crossed my mind. Prices were depressed for several years. In fact, we probably didn’t break even until about 1996 or 1997. Fast forward to 2004, and we sold the home for $435,000 (we live outside of DC where housing prices are insane). The point is that in the short term, housing prices can do some crazy things. But give real estate enough time, and it generally rises with inflation. Your house may be worth less than you owe today, but when you are making a decision as important as whether to stay in your home, consider the long-term.

With that, here are some factors to think about if you are considering walking away from your mortgage.

Your sense of right and wrong

Is walking away from a debt you are able to pay morally wrong? It’s one thing if the loss of a job, medical bills, or some other financial crisis prevents you from paying the mortgage. It’s another if you can pay it, but decide not to because you’ve concluded you entered into a bad deal. With that said, I’m not here to pass judgment, but I do think it’s a question worth asking if you are thinking about walking away from a mortgage. If you have an opinion on this point, share your thoughts in the comments below.

How underwater is your mortgage

Real estate that has lost significant value generally is located where prices are subject to extreme variation. This would include locations on both coasts, as well as places like Las Vegas. It also includes locations that are highly dependent for employment on one industry. In the 1970s that would include Houston, TX. A friend who lived there at the time recalls entire housing developments that were brand new and totally empty. Houston has long since recovered, and real estate prices have risen. Today, Detroit is suffering a similar fate. I suspect it will turn around, but there are no guarantees.

The point is that in those markets where prices have fallen precipitously, they can and likely will rise again by equal or greater amounts. This goes back to my story above—think long term.

Understand deficiency judgments

Just because you walk away from a mortgage does not mean that you’re off the hook. There are two types of home loans—recourse and non-recourse. Recourse loans mean that the mortgage company can come after you if they foreclosure on your home and sell it, but the sale does not generate sufficient income to pay off the loan. Whether your loan is recourse or not depends largely on state law. The key here is to find out before you make a decision.

Explore other options

Depending on your specific situation, there are many alternatives to walking away from a mortgage. Here are a few of them:

  1. Refinance your mortgage: While your home may be worth less than you owe, refinancing may still be an option under certain federal programs implemented this year. Interest rates remain at historic lows (check out today’s mortgage rates) and lowering your rate may give you just enough incentive to stay in the home. If your monthly payment is the big problem, it’s worth at least looking into refinancing. You can talk to your current bank or get several free refinancing quotes online.
  2. Rent out your home: There are two options here. One is to simply rent out your home. The problem here for many will be that rent payments won’t cover your mortgage. That’s the case with the reader who e-mailed me. Of course, you can always chose to rent it out for less than the mortgage, and simply pay the difference. Depending on how big the difference is, though, renting may not be any better of an option than just staying put. The second option is to offer your home to a renter on a lease-option contract. A lease option is basically a rent with an option to buy added into the deal.
  3. Deed in lieu of foreclosure: With a deed in lieu of foreclosure, you basically get your mortgage company to agree to take ownership of your home in full satisfaction of the outstanding loan. This can be an important option in states where deficiency judgments are available.
  4. Short Sale: A short sale is a sale of your home for less than you own the bank, coupled with an agreement from the bank to forgive the difference. One of the advantages of a short sale is that you’ll be able to buy another home much faster than if you simply walk away from the mortgage.
  5. Talk to your bank: Finally, talk to your bank about options. If your plan is to walk away from the mortgage anyway, discussing options with your bank can’t hurt.

Recognize that your credit score will take a big hit

A foreclosure will have a major impact on your credit score. According to Fannie Mae, a foreclosure can stay on your credit report for up to 7 years. A foreclosure can bring down your credit score by 100 to 200 points, making it difficult to qualify for for traditional credit. And if you do get credit, it will be at much higher interest rates.

Don’t plan on buying another home for several years

Plan on waiting at least three to five years to buy another home. That’s the time required to qualify for most mortgages. The time is shorter for a deed in lieu of foreclosure or short sale. But walk out on your mortgage and you’re looking at a five year wait.

Will you be better off 5 or 10 years later

With all of the above factors in mind, consider whether you will be better off five to 10 years later. While walking away from a mortgage might have some short term appeal, in the long run, it could very well make matters worse. Real estate prices have fallen, which can be disheartening. But the real estate market will recover, and prices will rise again.

Topics: Mortgages

5 Responses to “When (if ever) Should You Walk Away From a Mortgage”

  1. Very informative article.

    I think if you are only underwater by $25,000 this is not a major milestone and you should likely just hold on. The ramifications from walking away can be much greater than you are aware. Even if you are underwater you need to consider how being delinquent is going to prevent any future banks from dealing with you in the future. Your credit score will be damaged for many years so if you think you’re out of the real estate market for 10 years and won’t need any loans for 10 years it may be in your best interest to walk, but 10 years is a long time to forecast.

  2. You brought up a lot of things to consider for someone who is in such a situations. One thing that strikes me is its a no-down ARM. I’d be interested to see not only the difference between what is owed and the current value but also the rates and payments he may have to deal with. ARMs could easily bring the payments to a very unaffordable level for him which is something else to take into account when making the decision to walk away.

  3. You signed the contract, you can afford the home, you owe the money. Keep making your payments. Your home is a place to live and unless you need to sell suddenly, it doesn’t matter that you are underwater. Housing values will come back eventually. Hang in there and keep making those payments.

  4. I have read a book about Gov’t Grants and I hope it could help those who are having problems financially or those who want to put up a business in the future. It’s very helpful. It’s called:
    How to start or grow business using government grant money – Directory of grant funding programs

  5. This is very informative. I bought my house for $1.1million and the house next door (exact replica and size) just sold for $750 and another sold a few months earlier for $680. It would probably take 25-30 years to break even. Not economically sound to stay in the house

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